Prone to Procrastinating? Why the Way You Set Deadlines Could Make Things Worse, Not Better.

When it comes to being productive and getting work done, do you like to set deadlines? Or are you more the kind of person that just goes with the flow?

I have a kid who seems to be allergic to calendars, and philosophically opposed to setting times for when to do things. He explains that putting things on the calendar doesn’t work, and he responds better if he just does things on his own internal calendar.

Which of course makes me nervous. I mean, if things aren’t written down on the calendar, will anything ever get done?

I tend to write everything down. From what to buy at the grocery store, to how many socks to pack on a trip, to what books I want to read and Netflix shows I want to see, to when the dog should be given his heartworm medicine, it all gets written down on the calendar or a todo list, with dates and reminders and priority flags and everything.

But in all fairness to the kid, I have to confess that most of the items on my todo list don’t actually get done on the schedule I set for myself (if at all!). And I still totally procrastinate on things.

Which is to say…could the kid be onto something? Could deadlines make us even more prone to procrastinating?

Is it possible that his no-deadline approach is actually more effective and less self-delusional? 🙄

1 week vs. 1 month vs. no deadline

In a 2021 study (Knowles et al.), researchers mailed out short surveys on charitable giving to 1092 registered voters in New Zealand. They were told that it would take ~5 minutes to complete, and that if they did, $10 would be donated to their choice of charities – either World Vision or Salvation Army.

About a third were told that they would have one week to complete the survey, while another third were told that they had one monthand the final third were given no deadline at all.

And which group had the highest response rate?

Which was best?

As is usually the case with these sorts of things, response rates in general weren’t awesome. But wouldn’t you know it, the no deadline group had the highest response rate – 8.32%!

Next highest was the one week group at 6.59%. And the one month group had the lowest response rate at 5.53%.

What?!

The researchers surmised that the longer deadline could have implied that the task is not so urgent, implicitly giving participants “permission” to put the task off until later. And that at some point, even if participants had every intention of the survey, the long delay may have led many to forget.

Meanwhile, the shorter deadline involves more urgency. And the lack of a deadline could very well have implied an even greater sense of urgency because of its ambiguity.

Tasks for others vs. tasks for yourself

Of course, it’s important to note that this study looked at a task that benefits others. Which is very different from a situation where we lose out if we fail to take action.

And sure enough, there’s a 1992 study (Tversky & Shafir) where researchers offered participants $5 (for themselves, not a charity) in exchange for a lengthy questionnaire. In this case, they found that no deadlines led to the lowest response rates (25%), while the shortest response rates of 5 days led to the best response rates (60%), and a three-week deadline being somewhere in between (42 %).

So yeah, the evidence either way may not be overwhelming, but I’m not sold on no deadlines as an anti-procrastination strategy for personal tasks like homework or practicing.

But what about this short vs. long deadline thing? When it comes to getting things done, could it be that short deadlines are better than long deadlines?

Deadline length

Previous research suggests that we generally prefer longer deadlines. However, the downside with longer deadlines is that when we have more time to complete a task, there can be a tendency for our brain to automatically assume that this means the task must be more difficult, and build it up in our heads as being a bigger deal than it really is. Which in turn could potentially lead us to indulge our inner procrastination monkey and put the task off.

Short vs. long deadlines

For instance, in a 2016 study (Zhu et al.), participants were asked to complete a short 3-question survey about saving for retirement. Half of the participants (the short group) were given 7 days to complete the survey, while the other half (long group) were given 14 days.

The researchers were not only curious to see if the 14-day group would procrastinate more, but also wondered if participants would treat the task like a bigger deal than it needed to be, and devote more time and energy to it than the 7-day group.

And did they?

Which was better?

Indeed they did!

The long deadline group spent almost twice as much time Answering each question than the short deadline group did – 437.34 seconds vs. 235.41 seconds.

They also wrote significantly longer responses to each of the questions.

And it’s not because the long deadline group believed the survey was more important. There was no difference between groups in how important they thought it was to complete the survey.

Yet the long deadline group did seem to interpret the task as requiring more work than the short deadline group did. And accordingly, the long deadline group procrastinated longer on doing the task than the short deadline group—waiting nearly 39 hours before starting the survey, compared to just 21 hours for the short deadline group.

In addition, it probably won’t surprise you that out of the 236 people who initially volunteered for the study, those in the long deadline group were less likely to follow through and complete the survey than the short deadline group (47% vs. 60%).

Takeaways

Admittedly, there are some goals that do have long deadlines – like saving for retirement, or preparing for a recital, audition, or big international competition. But maybe this is where setting tiny, specific, bite-sized mini-deadlines can help us ensure that we’re not setting ourselves up to feel overwhelmed and spend more time on a task than is necessary.

Which reminds me of that famous Leonard Bernstein quote – “To achieve great things, two things are needed: A plan, and not quite enough time.”

That always struck me as intriguing, but I don’t know that I ever really got it. But in light of the studies we looked at today, this is starting to make a lot more sense!


References

Knowles, S., Servátka, M., Sullivan, T., & Genç, M. (2021). Procrastination and the non‐monotonic effect of deadlines on task completion. Economic Inquiry, 60(2), 706–720. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecin.13042

Tversky, A., & Shafir, E. (1992). Choice under Conflict: The Dynamics of Deferred Decision. Psychological Science, 3(6), 358–361. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1992.tb00047.x

Zhu, M., Bagchi, R., & Hock, SJ (2018). The Mere Deadline Effect: Why More Time Might Sabotage Goal Pursuit. Journal of Consumer Research, 45(5), 1068–1084. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucy030

Leave a Comment